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Commission votes unanimously to investigate elections chief

Hillsborough Supervisor of Elections Phyllis Busansky told county commissioners her office will need a lot more money.

KAINAZ AMARIA | Times

Hillsborough Supervisor of Elections Phyllis Busansky told county commissioners her office will need a lot more money.

TAMPA — Hillsborough County commissioners called for an outside investigation that would include law enforcement to look into financial irregularities under former elections chief Buddy Johnson.

The unanimous vote came a day after a blistering audit of spending records for Johnson's final year as supervisor of elections concluded that he broke state law by overspending his budget by nearly $1 million.

It also came the same day that the new supervisor of elections, Democrat Phyllis Busansky, asked for an additional $2.2 million to pay off a contract for new voting machines.

Commissioners had already given Johnson, the Republican incumbent, the money to pay the contract with Premier Election Solutions last year.

A three-term state House member, Johnson was named by then-Gov. Jeb Bush to fill a vacancy in the elections office, and he was elected to the post in 2004. But even fellow Republicans turned on him Wednesday.

One commissioner said the bailout is particularly troublesome since the board also voted Wednesday to lay off about two dozen people in the county building permits office due to the slow economy.

"We could have saved an awful lot of jobs with this," said Commissioner Rose Ferlita. "It is absolutely disgusting."

Commissioners expressed gratitude and sympathy toward Busansky for her efforts to straighten out the finances of the elections office.

Commission Chairman Ken Hagan thanked Busansky for her leadership in "cleaning up the nightmare in that office."

Johnson offered his first comments in weeks after a drumbeat of stories questioning his conduct while in office, saying he welcomes the scrutiny.

"I'm not afraid of the truth, and I'm not afraid of anybody looking for the truth," he said. "I have every confidence that my staff, if given the opportunity, could fully explain. If we sat down, we could answer every single question."

Questions aplenty

There are lots of questions, and Johnson declined to discuss specifics other than to say no money was misappropriated.

Busansky said Wednesday she will soon be going back to commissioners to ask for more money. While she would not estimate an amount, it could come to millions more.

Busansky, who took office last month, told commissioners that the budget lists about $3.1 million to cover operating expenses this fiscal year, which runs through September. But there is only about $300,000 left, and said she can't yet account for how the money was spent.

"We have nowhere to go but up," Busansky said. "But I need your help to make it happen."

Commissioners voted unanimously to have County Attorney Renee Lee determine any and all agencies that might have a reason to investigate the elections office under Johnson, and ask them to do so. Attorneys will share copies of the audit and other relevant information.

Lee said afterward that interested agencies could include the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, and the state attorney and auditor general. Attempts to confirm whether any investigations have been initiated were unsuccessful.

"We are ethically precluded from confirming or denying whether we are investigating the matter," said Assistant State Attorney Pam Bondi.

Secretary of State Kurt Browning, who oversees the Florida Division of Elections, is also keeping a keen eye on developments in Hillsborough.

Watching closely

Browning, who talked with Busansky Wednesday morning, will wait until a second audit of Johnson's office's finances, for the period Oct. 1 through Jan. 5, is complete before taking further action, according to his spokeswoman, Jennifer Davis.

"We want to make sure the county has the opportunity to go through the audit process of the last months Mr. Johnson was in office and then assist where we can," said Davis.

Browning's particular focus is on whether any federal grant money from the Help America Vote Act was misspent.

State records examined by the St. Petersburg Times show that, in the runup to the general election, Johnson authorized the expenditure of about $2.5 million in federal grant money in a blizzard of TV spots, radio ads and print pieces for "voter education." Most of it featured Johnson's name or image. Some, including Busansky, complained that this was more to campaign for Johnson than to educate for voters.

"Our concern is about the use of the federal funds," said Davis. "We are the agency that disburses the federal grant money to the election supervisors, and there would have to be a repayment if any of that grant money was used for unauthorized purposes."

The audit released Tuesday says that, in addition to the $942,022 he overspent last year, Johnson improperly commingled local tax dollars and federal grant money, making it difficult to track if they were properly spent.

Also noted were that Johnson's office lacked proper controls to prevent overspending, and missed a state-mandated, year-end deadline to reconcile his books.

Busansky defeated Johnson in the November election, which also was marred by problems. Elections workers have twice now turned up batches of ballots that weren't counted on Election Day, and it took days for Johnson to tally totals for the votes that were counted.

Millions extra

Just before leaving office, he requested a last-minute $2.3 million infusion to cover "unanticipated costs" due to heavy voter interest after warning for months that there would be record turnout. He withdrew the request when commissioners started asking questions.

These days, Johnson said, he is promoting the health benefits of fruit drink Mona Vie, though he stopped short of saying he was selling it. He said he's reading Walking with God and addicted to the television show 24.

He said he doesn't understand the current characterizations of his time as elections supervisor.

"I feel like I'm walking around the inside of a Salvador Dali painting," Johnson said. "It's surreal — you have people criticizing you who have pitched an angle on the operations of my office that is just not real."

Times staff writers Jessica Vander Velde and Jeff Testerman contributed to this report. Bill Varian can be reached at varian@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3387.

Commission votes unanimously to investigate elections chief 02/04/09 [Last modified: Friday, February 6, 2009 7:59am]

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